Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Minor Adventure Upstate: Great Band, Great Show, Nobody Listens

In urban artistic communities, there’s a common perception that outside the city gates, there’s nothing but a vast wasteland of cultural indifference, conservatism and conformity. A more optimistic view is that the cultural innovators who, twenty years ago, would have flocked to the cities, have long since been priced out of the market. Therefore, they stay put, creating vital micro-scenes in all kinds of unexpected places all over the country. Those two theories were put to the test at dark New York rock band Ninth House’s show upstate at a carnival in Putnam Valley on Saturday evening.

Twenty years ago, a black-clad Nashville gothic band attempting to entertain crowds of families and toddlers in broad daylight in a more-or-less rural area would have been serious culture shock. Fast forward to 2011 – twenty years, maybe more, since the Psychedelic Furs and Social Distortion, two of the bands Ninth House often resembles, hit the peak of their popularity. Most of the kids who were listening to those bands back in the 80s are parents now. Would any of those people be in the crowd, reliving their lost youth as fans of what was then called “alternative rock?” Apparently not.

Which was sad. Pretty much any streetcorner busker with any charisma at all can attract a gaggle of people, but the crowd was absolutely oblivious. Which was no fault of the organizers: the sound wasn’t pristine, but it was loud. What about the kids, the next generation of nonconformists? Would any of them drift over to see what the band was up to? Nope. Was frontman Mark Sinnis’ baritone too ominous? Under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn’t seem so: there’s an awful lot of Johnny Cash fans out there. Was guitarist Keith Otten too abrasive? Hardly. Firing off ornately savage minor-key riffs or snarling rockabilly phases, he bridged the gap from Luther Perkins to Bernard Albrecht with effortless intensity alongside keyboardist Zach’s nonchalant piano and organ and drummer Francis Xavier’s steady shuffles.

Was the songs’ subject matter too disturbing? “I’ll have another drink of whiskey, because death is not so faraway,” Sinnis intoned cynically – a C&W philosophy that’s a hundred years old or more. They wailed methodically through two long sets of songs that have resonated with New York audiences since their first incarnation in the late 90s – the apprehensively swaying Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, the savagely cynical Fallible Friend, and more – but nobody paid any attention save for a small posse of friends who’d gathered by the stage, drinking hard liquor from a thermos so as not to get busted.

Validation of theory #1? Just a random bad crowd? Or were all those Furs and Social Distortion fans the last wave of cool kids to escape to the city, waiting patiently at home for the band to get back to Manhattan?

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May 2, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

After Ten Years, Ninth House Finally Record Their Masterpiece

Long-running New York rockers Ninth House have been through as many incarnations as David Bowie or Madonna. Over the last decade, they’ve played ornate goth-tinged art-rock, straight-up punk, rockabilly, and even went through a brief jamband phase. Their new album 11 Cemetery & Western Classics finds them digging deep into frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ signature Nashville gothic songwriting style, and they’ve never sounded better: track for track, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a welcome return to the hard-hitting, stripped-down sound they first mined as a three-piece over ten years ago, with the added advantage of now having former Gotham Four frontman Keith Otten on guitar. He’s the best lead player you’ve never heard of, ripping through one intense, fire-and-brimstone solo after another, yet also just as likely to toss off a tongue-in-cheek rockabilly riff or poignant, plaintive washes of sound if a song calls for it, over the rumble and swing of Sinnis and drummer Francis Xavier.

They kick it off angry and bitter with Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate – “From New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” Sinnis rages in between Otten’s alternately sparse and anguished leads. The relentless, doomed, pulsing Funeral for Your Mind features one of the most spine-tingling solos on any rock record this year; the fatalistic, tango-inflected Fallible Friend has a trumpet section that adds a spaghetti western feel, Otten’s savage, sardonic guitar a perfect complement to Sinnis’ cynical lyric. Otten’s countrypolitan guitar blends warmly with Susan Mitchell’s rustic, pastoral violin on the swinging Nashville gothic anthem The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, while When the Light Blinds and You Die takes a gospel melody and imbues it with suspenseful Steve Wynn-style psychedelic atmospherics.

A couple of tracks here date from the band’s landmark 2000 album Swim in the Silence. The Head on the Door-era Cure-style pop of Down Beneath is more swinging and carefree than the original, while Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, a genuine classic the first time around, trades lush 80s ambience for a raw, wounded intensity.

The album also includes a couple of covers: Lost Highway owes more to the Psychedelic Furs than it does Hank Williams, Mitchell adding unexpected flair with her violin, while guest pianist Matt Dundas gives a honkytonk edge to the Social Distortion-style stomp of Johnny Cash’s Blue Train. The album ends on a high note – as high a note as a song this morbid can hit, anyway – with the chaotic, sprawling country ballad 100 Years from Now, Sinnis announcing that when his time is up, he wants to be buried with a bottle of whiskey. Ninth House play the cd release show for this one on Sept 24 at midnight at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. between Delancey and Broome with free admission before 11.

September 7, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mark Sinnis at the Slipper Room, NYC 4/18/10

Mark Sinnis, frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House plays his solo acoustic show at least as frequently, maybe more than he does with his band. Celebrating the release of his third solo cd, The Night’s Last Tomorrow, he held the goth night crowd at the Slipper Room rapt Sunday night with his most energetic solo performance in a long time. Most recently, he’d been mining a quietly creepy, Leonard Cohen-esque, minimalist style. This time out, backed only by extraordinary string player Susan Mitchell – doubling on electric violin and electric cello – he alternated between a stygian croon and an unleashed roar, his acoustic guitar amped almost to the point of distortion. Still, the show maintained the same kind of nuance of his most recent acoustic gigs – it’s not often that you see a guy who plays with a band as loud as Ninth House projecting gently with a laid-back, black velvet Johnny Cash style delivery.

Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, the opener, is a furious stomp when done by the band, a not-so-subtle swipe at a no-longer-edgy New York where the fashion-centric shallowness of indie rock overshadows the real thing. This one downplayed the local angle, an elegy for dashed hopes and dreams. Mitchell’s gracefully descending violin gave the offhandedly dismissive Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me considerable added poignancy; their version of Saint James Infirmary unleashed the song’s inner goth, culminating in a flurry of Balkan violin madness. Another new one, Fallible Friend, a catalog of disillusionments, flipped the script with a trick ending; the gospel-tinged That’s Why I Won’t Love You became more of a backwoods funeral, Mitchell again adding white-knuckle intensity. She switched to cello for a macabre janglerock version of the once-banned classic Gloomy Sunday. They encored with the Ninth House concert favorite Follow the Line, a characteristically passionate tribute to drinking and driving, “poison” becoming “whiskey” as Sinnis let the word slip out, Freudian style, on the second verse. Watch this space for a review of the album, his best solo effort to date.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/3/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s song is #176:

Ninth House – Death Song

This one takes a little while to get going – hang in there (or just fast forward to when the guitar comes in at about :45). It’s one of the great macabre anthems. Play this one on the plane as you’re taking off – or landing. From The Eye That Refuses To Blink, 2006.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Keith Otten Live in NYC 1/31/10

New York audiences these days probably know Keith Otten best as the offhandedly fiery guitarist in Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House.Yet over the past twenty years, he’s built a reputation as one of those “best guitarists you’ve never heard of” in projects as diverse as pioneering 90s Britrock band Feed (with Tim Butler of the Psychedelic Furs), janglepopsters Six Ways to Sunday and his own group, the frequently magnificent, anthemic Gotham 4. Downtown early Sunday evening at a onetime Chinatown mob bar, he packed the place – on the coldest day of the year, no less – and turned in an often fascinating solo acoustic mix of material from all over the map.

Otten’s pensive, sometimes ominous original songs blend the classic with the modern: anthemic, melodic echoes of artsy bands like the Church, Radiohead and sometimes Oasis mingle with reverberating open chords. He has as much of a thing for Americana as he has for British bands; the Jimmy Page thing never reared its head, this being an acoustic show. Producer Eric Ambel famously remarked how a song needs to be good by itself before it can ever sound good with a band, and these held their own. An apprehensive new one about a pre-apocalyptic Manhattan opened as blue-sky country, but then the clouds and the complexity came sweeping in. The ever-widening circle of chords on the chorus of Long Enough (a popular one in his Gotham 4 days) were more than enough to keep the crowd guessing. He took that device to the extreme, but subtly, with another new one, Sweetly (there’s a stripped-down version on his myspace), bedeviling the audience with a long fade out, then suddenly bringing it back up again before reverting to tease mode. Ditch, a track from his most recent studio effort, took on a stinging minor-key garage rock feel, having been freed from the U2 style arrangement the band gave it. Otten closed with a remarkably flamencoish version of his mighty White Rabbit-inflected anthem 3001, its underlying intensity enhanced by the acoustic arrangement. Otten’s next New York show with Ninth House is at Hank’s on Feb 27 at 11; his next solo gig is March 15 at Sidewalk. Great players don’t get much more under the radar than this.

February 1, 2010 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Ninth House at Otto’s, NYC 1/9/10

By a quarter to eleven, the world’s most inept rockabilly band is finishing up. The bass player can’t figure out the chords to Mystery Train. But they have an excuse: they’re in high school.

Ninth House take the stage minus their keyboardist, but with the reliably intense Susan Mitchell on viola. Rightaway she finds her spot and holds it down, playing eerie washes of sound, doubling the vocal line, foreshadowing it or establishing a harmony since guitarist Keith Otten – the best six-string player this band’s ever had-  is wailing with a casually savage Jimmy Page-gone-terse vibe. They open with a new one, Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, galloping along a la vintage Social Distortion. “Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate, from New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” roars bassist/singer Mark Sinnis in his sinister baritone.

They usually open with Long Stray Whim and its blast of guitar fury, but this time they play it second. Mitchell brings an eerie bluesiness to her solo and Otten follows her, even eerier. They should be at odds with the defiant, major-key triumph of the melody but they’re not.

Another new one, Funeral for Your Mind is a brutal anthem. Drummer Francis Xavier rides the toms to drive the chorus home, hard. When the time comes, another paint-peeling Otten guitar solo over Mitchell’s stark ambience.

Injury Home is a noir cabaret blues, and Mitchell takes the lead, giving it an oldtimey feel; they follow that with the catchy, poppy, swaying, mid-80s Cure-ish Down Beneath.

“That song is about dying. This song is about dying too,” Sinnis tells the packed house. And then launches into a fast country shuffle. “Death is your friend, in harmony.” The crowd loves it. They want more and they get it.

“Here’s another song about dying.”  This is a brand new one, “A world premiere,” as Sinnis cynically puts it. More pounding post-Social Distortion punkabilly. The guy wants to be buried “in a suit of black, with a bottle of whiskey at my feet.” That doesn’t exactly come as a shock.

They close with a pummeling punked-out cover of Ghost Riders, flying along until Sinnis ends it cold. The rockabilly kids have stayed; some have their phones out, taking pictures, making videos. They’ve just seen one of New York’s best bands for the last ten years at the top of their macabre game, most likely for the first time. They probably will again.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

A folk-pop masterpiece. If you consider that statement an oxymoron, give a listen to the Sweet Bitters‘ full-length debut. The cd features the absolutely unique and individual voices and songwriting of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (formerly one of the sirens in Aimee Van Dyne’s harmony-driven band). Goldman, who’s got three first-class albums of her own out, is one of those rare talents who could write a catchy, fun pop song seemingly in a split second. Like her songwriting, her vocals are almost breathtakingly warm and direct, delicately nuanced but completely unaffected. Schmir is more complex and oblique, both vocally and writing-wise, with just a tinge of smoke in the voice, blending a contemporary urban folk vibe (think Dar Williams) with oldschool Brill Building charm. Both are poignant, very bright and can be very funny – humor is a function of intellect anyway. Over a terse, impeccably tasteful, un-autotuned and drum machine-free mix of acoustic and electric guitar, rhythm section and Schmir’s incisive piano, the two blend voices and offer up an indelibly New York-flavored mix of struggle, despair and triumphant joy.

For the most part, Schmir’s songs are the darkest here. The cd’s opening cut Vegas is a knowing Harder They Come update for the end of the decade: “It’s all going nowhere fast.” From the opening lines of Last Time This Way, as the narrator grabs a cookie and some wine and runs out to meet her boyfriend, you just know that this is not going to work out well. Tom Thumb (on Brighton Beach), a quintessentially urban tale, is visceral with regret and longing. But then there’s the playfully metaphorical Little Aliens, driving out the demons with a lullaby.

Goldman’s Secret Scar is a great, crescendoing rock anthem disguised as pretty acoustic pop – one can only wonder what the BoDeans (or Ninth House, for that matter) could do with it. Falling Into Place is another catchy urban tale, perhaps the only song ever to immortalize Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “If I believed in god I would close my eyes and pray,” she sings in the imagistic, regret-laden acoustic Firefly. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upbeat Susie Sunshine, with its delicious layers of harmonies and lyrics, is less gloating schadenfreude than surprise that maybe things haven’t been so bad after all, in the years since Susie was in her prime (that was in college, Goldman wants you to know). But the centerpiece of the album, and one of the best songs released this decade, is Clocks Fall Back. If anyone is alive fifty years from now and wants to understand what New York was like at the end of the decade, let them listen to this, a towering, majestic harmony-driven anthem, vividly and unforgettably juxtaposing images of clueless excess and grinding poverty over a bittersweet, swaying 6/8 melody slightly evocative of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. The cd closes, something akin to sweet after bitter, with a love song: the guy can watch all the bad action movies he wants, but the girl’s not going to let him finish that pint of ice cream without giving her a bite!

The Sweet Bitters play the cd release for this one at Kenny’s Castaways on May 30 at 7.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

CD Review: Jeff Zentner – The Dying Days of Summer

Absolutely first-class, richly lyrical Nashville gothic from Asheville, North Carolina tunesmith Jeff Zentner. The instrumentation is mostly acoustic, very rustic in places but the lyrical vision is completely in the here and now. The often white-knuckle intensity in the songs and Zentner’s sometimes breathy voice remind a lot of Matt Keating, particularly his Summer Tonight album from a couple of years ago; musically, it’s a lot closer to the nocturnal sound of Ninth House frontman Mark Sinnis’ haunting solo work. Zentner plays pretty much all the instruments here except the piano and harmonium, sparsely and elegantly arranged. The production is particularly smart, the music perfectly matching the brooding feel of the lyrics, an intricate web of stringed instruments awash in eerie, echoey reverb, pedal steel soaring mournfully overhead.

The songs span from vivid narratives, a few sad waltzes and a couple of hypnotic, atmospheric soundscapes, notably Where We Fall We’ll Lie, the most overtly gothic song here with insistent, incisive guitars and hushed, haunted male/female vocals in the same vein as Black Fortress of Opium. With its echoey vocals over acoustic guitar and spiky banjo, the vividly metaphorical, bluegrass-inflected Burning Season may be the strongest track here:

It’s burning season again…

Lays waste to all that we knew

Smoke from the fire rises from the desolate fields

I see the ghosts like a daze…

I did not survive your burning season

I was not the only one

I may be the only person who rises from the ashes…

Slide guitar soaring in the background, Somewhere South of Here is heavy with longing for escape from” this place of trailer parks and auto parts stores,” to “cities built to forget, some great distance south of here.” Night Jasmine is absolutely gorgeous, something of an elegy for the people of the night where he’s from, cello playing off the banjo for some exquisite textures, cigarette smoke hanging in the air as the cicadas drown out the band:

This became a ruin

It can’t survive the morning

Like so many people I know

The Weight of Memory echoes David Bowie’s Five Years:

The good ones weigh more…

The ghosts that in me dwell

They won’t let me sleep

They hurt me so much now

And I’m still a young man

How will I grow old

I have no room inside

The rest of the album mixes wary, doom-obsessed ballads like the pedal steel-driven To Speak Above the Rain with pensive laments, ending with a mix of optimism and dread with the stately waltz If This Is To Be Goodbye:

Let me believe that love’s nature is such

That you’d rather leave me than tell me a lie

Darker than Iron & Wine, more deeply steeped in Americana than Nick Cave, this nonetheless ought to appeal to both camps. Right now Zentner is offering a special, copies of his first album Hymns to the Darkness plus the new one both for $23, email for info. Watch for this on our best 50 albums list of 2009 at the end of the year.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 3/3/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #512:

The Gotham 4 – 3001

Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten originally released this towering, savage, flamenco-inflected anthem on the 1997 debut cd by his Kotten project, but it’s his 2006 two-guitar version with this later band that really burns down the house. Unlike what you might think, it’s not a sci-fi epic; the title refers to the number of days in a marriage.

March 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – A Southern Tale

The baritone Ninth House frontman’s second sparsely produced, mostly acoustic solo cd is much like his first, but more fully realized and thematic. As with last year’s Into an Unhidden Future, the production is straight out of late-period, Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash, minimalist fingerpicked acoustic guitar choicely and often beautifully embellished with piano, strings and Lenny Molotov’s characteristically incisive lapsteel work. Sinnis’ songwriting, and his choice of covers, is more diverse than ever. The latest edition of Ninth House harks back to the band’s haunting, ornate, classically-inflected early zeros sound, so it’s no surprise that Sinnis would mine a more overtly Romantic vein here as well (there’s even a ballad that makes use of the theme from Beethoven’s Pathetique). 

 

 

 

The cd begins and ends on the same somber, death-obsessed note, the opening cut It’s The End, But There’s No Heaven as sepulchral as humanly possible with Molotov and violinist Susan Mitchell trading off ghostly trails of sound. As with Sinnis’ first cd, there are some remakes of old Ninth House songs here as well. Down Beneath, from 2000’s Swim in the Silence, is a dead ringer for the Cure; here, it’s transformed into a swaying country lullaby with rustic violin and terse piano from Matthew Dundas. Mind Melt, from the 2004 Aerosol collection of outtakes and live cuts likewise gets a warmly nocturnal treatment, as does the brand-new ballad Turn Another Page.

 

Freed (temporarily) from the confines of having to belt over a furious electric band, Sinnis has never sung with more casual menace – or casual soulfulness – than he does here. Covering I Still Miss Someone could all too easily go in the direction of parody or pointlessness, but Sinnis keeps it simple and acquits himself well. There’s also a low-key Broadway song (Lerner and Lowe’s Follow Me), a gothic rewrite of a Xmas carol, a couple of straight-up romantic ballads and the offhandedly scary existentialist lament There’s No Rhyme or Reason that winds up the cd. Fans of all the dark haunting guys: Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Ian Curtis and Johnny Cash as well ought to get to know Mark Sinnis. You’ll see this one on our Top 50 CDs of 2009 list at the end of the year. Ninth House’s next show is at Hank’s on Feb 28 at 11.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment